Best Queer Fantasy I’ve Read the Past Year

I’ve read so few books this year and am in the middle of exam season, but I always know pride month is around the corner from the increased interest in my queer book posts. That said, there’s always this difference, if a somewhat diffuse one, between great fantasy book with some queer characters and great queer fantasy. This list has a bit of both.

City of Strife by Claudie Arseneault

This was a book I reread this year, because it’s so unique in what it manages to do as a high fantasy. All the characters are queer; bisexual, demi, pan, poly, gender fluid, agender, asexual, aromantic is all represented in an overall ruthless and amazing magical city. I might have a big weakness for main characters who take the time to observe the world around them, is a thief or assassin, but also cares deeply for their friends and features platonic love. It’s politics, merchant families, rivalry. The plot builds so naturally on the personalities and choices made by these characters and their lives intertwining by living in the same city. It has quite the list of trigger warnings though, so be careful to check those. It is quite the ruthless city, which makes the constant focus on characters interacting with each other and the reality of the place so special.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

I really would have loved this book as a middle school kid (or even younger actually). It’s a queer romance between a Latino trans boy and a gay boy, featuring murder mystery and ghosts. It’s fast-paced, funny, cute and dramatic, with a somewhat predictable plot which is why I don’t really think it fits into the older end of YA as it was marketed as.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

The tagline for this book seems to be lesbian necromancers in space, which would be correct. It’s very much a love it or hate it type of book, because you’re thrown into the plot and have to start paddling to keep up with the characters. It does a great job turning into an unusual fantasy book even though it’s set in a fairly usual setting of deadly competition. The writing and character personalities are fantastic, as well as the well-hidden system behind the magic – not to forget the enemies to lovers (maybe) of the main characters.

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

It’s a great fantasy book where the main character is sapphic and has a crush on a brilliant assistant she meets. It has thieves, heists, magical technology, Merchant Houses that controls the city and has created capitalist monopolies. The writing is very straight-forward for this type of book, and makes it very accessible and an easy read despite being high-fantasy and having great world-building.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Baru’s island is taken over and controlled under an empire that believes heavily in eugenics, ruthlessly changing the society as they see fit (including forcing queer couples apart) and placing the kids in terrifying boarding schools. And Baru plays the waiting game for revenge for her family which they murdered, as the colonizers clothe her and educate her in what they see fitting. Definitely a brutal fantasy, but more so in the cultural impact and strategies than the wars of high fantasy. It’s very much debating morality of if ends justify means, as Baru gets more ruthless and morally-gray in trying to achieve revenge. It’s a book about not losing yourself and, despite being “othered”, Baru always reconnecting with where she is from, with the fact that she’s a lesbian being a big part of that.

Silver in the Wood (Greenhollow Duology #1) by Emily Tesh

I was a bit unsure about this book while reading it, but I’ve been thinking about the vibes of this book since reading it. It has this cottagecore, forest aesthetic that really has a grip on me, with stories of the Wild Man of Greenhollow and the secret-folklorist that comes upon him. It’s short (112 pages) and manages to deliver on the fairytale-ish forest, magical realism vibes in the writing, but plot-wise, character-wise, etc. it does come up short to me. The m/m relationship and yearning could’ve been better as I didn’t quite feel it delivered on its potential, but it was worth the read looking back.

Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

I very much feel like this is the queer & way better version of Throne of Glass with its deadly auditions to become the Queen’s new assassin. What was a pleasant surprise was how the protagonist never was very vicious in their thought-process or tried to defend their actions, their reasoning behind taking lives were very business-like and unapologetic. The protagonist Sallot is gender-fluid using she and they pronouns based on how they present. Despite having a good start-point, the fantasy built on somewhat cheesy and typical fantasy plotlines that makes it very much YA fantasy, lacing in world-building or description and it’s a bit half-finished type of book.

This book brings me to a dilemma because it personally felt similiar vibes to “Ship of Smoke and Steel” by Sjango Wexler in the protagonist’s voice. But that book handled the queer aspect a lot worse including just not writing good female characters, while having a more interesting world powered by magic. So while Miller’s book wasn’t the best fantasy book I’ve read, I would rather recommend Miller’s book than Wexler’s.

Honorary mention to the (mainly) horror podcast “The Magnus Archive” which in their last season has an asexual relationship between two guys.

City of Strife by Claudie Arseneault | Review

Pages: 375

Genre: high fantasy, lgbt

TW for the book (from author): “abuse (physical, emotional, mind control — seriously, if depictions of abuse trigger you, please be very careful when approaching this novel/avoid it.), torture, homelessness, child abandonment, police brutality, racism, family death, memory loss, death by fire (mention) and hanging.”

My thoughts

I went into this book with little expectation or knowledge outside of it being a lesser-known fantasy book with many queer characters. All that was very true! All the characters are queer; bisexual, demi, pan, poly, gender fluid, agender, asexual, aromantic is all represented in an overall ruthless and amazing magical city. It is also a very ethnically diverse group. I just found out the author is the person behind the “Aro ace database” and it’s ownvoices for aro-ace.

The writing caught me from the very beginning;

Arathiel had grown tired—tired of not feeling rough wood under his hand, tired of not smelling the salty sea or earthy autumn air, tired of not tasting even allegedly spicy meals. Tired of being alone, a shadow, always one step removed from the world. One day, he would need to face his family.

I might have a big weakness for main characters who take the time to observe the world around them, is a thief or assassin, but also cares deeply for their friends. Also in general I find that there is way too little focus on platonic love, friends and friends as found-family in fantasy and young adult books (which is what I mainly read when it comes to fiction). And this book truly had all of those things, to the point where the few boring parts where the pacing gets a bit too slow is overshadowed by the good and unique elements for me. This book just gave me a lovely, fun and exciting experience reading it with characters I squeal over, but also feel comforted by. Without sacrificing any of the heavyness or high fantasy elements usual to the genre.

Tonight, however, he had a more mundane activity in mind: a game of cards with the two precious friends he’d managed to make. Way more stressful than sneaking into an inhabited building during the day, locating his target, and slitting his throat before anyone noticed him. Not to mention, Cal wanted to invite a new player today. Worse, he wanted Hasryan to do it.

Fantasy centered in a city and its politics with merchant families and rivalry, it’s just great. It highlights the many tough, quick choices characters have to make, magic making everything more complicated somehow as well. And the plot builds so naturally on the personalities and choices made by these characters and their lives intertwining by living in the same city. It’s not a very extended world-building and I think here’s where the fantasy book would’ve had more potential to build on. There is very many characters to keep track on through multiple POVs, but personally it was okay, even if a bit difficult to understand or relate to all of them just by the sheer amount. It is just a book that tries (and succeeds) to do a lot in under 400 pages. The morally gray aro-ace wizard-in-training Nevian is suffering under an abusive mentor. Arathiel is a mood, as they say, as he’s been gone from the city for 130 years after disappearing while looking for a cure for his ill sister. He’s back to a completely changed city and deciding on whether to claim his right as a noble or keep this anonymous new identity as the keeper of a homeless shelter of sorts. And I loved Cal of course. I’ve highlighted too many quotes of him talking about cheese to not love that character.

Cal climbed into it, then stared at Larryn, his legs dangling. Expecting something. Larryn cleared his throat, hurried to his pantry, and retrieved several types of cheese from it. He had bought so many yesterday, and it would be delusional not to admit guilt had played a big part in it. He had no intention of cooking with this

This will be a book I return to reread and I need to get a physical copy as well. And I’ve yet to read the next book, which I’m excited for! I always need more personality-driven fantasy books with lots of politics in my life, but especially when they have such a queer cast and focus on friendship and found families.